Dressing for IT success

Gone are the days of old jeans, sneakers, and long unkempt hair as the corporate suit muscles its way back into IT departments, accompanied by a swathe of expectations

When Matthew Broderick hacked into the US Defence Department's War Operations Plan Response (WOPR) system (aka Joshua) back in 1983 in the Warner Bros movie War Games, he also managed to drag the hypercasual dress code already endemic in the IT industry out of the closet.

Probably out of the bottom of the closet, where it had been resting in a crumpled heap for some time.

At one end of the spectrum major IT companies like IBM and Cray somehow managed to squeeze IT-types into blazers and ties for at least part of the day, but by the early 90s Bill Gates managed to subvert any notion that techies could adopt a corporate dress code, becoming the world's richest man while wearing an oversized cardigan and sandals.

By the end of the nineties the dot-com boom legitimised old jeans, sneakers, Birkenstocks or sandals, long unkempt hair, dishevelled beards, all manner of piercings, tie dyed t-shirts (it hides the stains), shorts, and the odd pair of hiking boots had all snuck their way into the IT-departments of mainstream businesses.

However, in the post dot-com boom world, the casual IT office appears to have been banished to the same place as "corporate synergies", "solutions providers" and "first-mover advantages".

According to Liz Duncan, IT director for multinational recruitment agency Robert Walters, IT departments within the large corporate enterprises are leading the march back toward formal corporate dress codes.

"I'm reluctant to say that there is one trend across all industries, but there has definitely been a return to a more corporate and dressier culture in the enterprise sector," Duncan says.

The trend, she believes can be attributed in part to the cost pressures that IT departments have been facing over the last 18 months, as well as an associated increase in the level of scrutiny under which such departments operate.

Liliana Caputo, NSW client relationship manager with Candle ICT recruitment, has noticed a "huge change" in the expectations companies have of their IT employee that is being reflected in a call for stricter dress codes.

"Companies expect more value from their IT departments, no matter what industry you look at, IT is seen as a way to add value to a company's operations, so management wants the IT staff to have more of a business focus in order to deliver that value," Caputo says.

However, Caputo believes corporate presentation is just one element in a long list of attributed companies now ask for in their IT staff.

"They can be choosier because there aren't as many jobs around," Caputo says. "Job candidates are being asked to give a lot more back to the business, they are expected to understand the business, and be able to fluently communicate with every level of their business, from the executives to the factory floor."

Beyond this, Ambit groups' chief executive officer Nicholas Barnett says there is a much greater emphasis on return on IT investment, along with a call to identify specific business outcomes for each project.

"A few years back there were a lot of new and evolving technologies and companies were prepared to experiment," Barnett says. "Now when companies implement new technologies they do it for a really clear reason, and the IT department are expected to have a really clear understanding of how a technology implementation will effect the rest of the business."

Barnett says companies have refined the selection process and are going to a lot more trouble to select candidates.

"IT is being seen more and more as a tool for business, and contractors have to be far more in tune with the needs of that business," Barnett says. "Three years ago candidates might only had to turn up for one interview, now they are expected to attend several during the selection process."

While industry pundits generally agree, presentation is more of an issue in customer facing roles, and it would appear that the one last bastion of the casual IT dress code are internally focussed IT departments. However, according to Alba Jennings, NSW state manager for Affinity IT recruitment there are some very important psychological drivers behind the corporate push.

"The mufti-day environment was good and relaxed, but wearing casual clothes takes away from the professional way people operate when they are professionally dressed," Jennings says. "People were going overboard and getting too casual, and it was effecting the way companies were operating. It is a fact of life, if people are corporate dressed they tend to behave in a more corporate fashion."

And those expecting a techie backlash, a casual rebellion as it were, may well be forced to wait for some time. With jobs scarce on the ground, IT job seekers are cutting back on their requirements when it comes to work place selection.

"People these days are asking for a job, any job, and they are happy to fit in which whatever the corporate expectations are, the emphasis is on getting stable work," Jennings says. "The demands of the past, a car and car spot, a casual work place, flexible hours, are all gone, a lot of things have changed."

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